Friday, 12:00am
13 May 2005

Cakes in close-up

Can Mr Kipling's upmarket redesign compete with own-brand cakes and tarts on the UK's supermarket shelves?

Web-only Critique written exclusively for eyemagazine.com

Packaging is an area of design often ignored by graphic design publishing. Trade magazines that feature packaging projects tend to limit their coverage to news reports about the client’s aims, the needs of the brand, the practical challenges and the budget. They rarely ask whether the work is any good and when they do, someone usually objects. Everyone expects critics to offer opinions about the latest novel, film or album, but a package created for the supermarket shelf?

Yet the slogans and images created for popular brands take root in the collective consciousness as deeply as pop songs and TV comedy catchphrases. Anyone who has watched British commercial television over the past three decades will recognise its advertising slogan: ‘Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes.’ The phrase drips with nostalgia for a simpler time, conjuring a heart-warming vignette of the bewhiskered Victorian baker stirring his cake mixture with a look of benign satisfaction on his face.

The latest designers to restyle this institution, the leading producer of packaged cakes, with an eleven per cent share of a market valued at £1.2 billion, are packaging specialists Turner Duckworth. Launched in 1967, the Mr Kipling brand has had to keep pace with changes in eating habits. In 1990, they introduced a range of individually wrapped cake bars suitable for snacks and carrying in a lunchbox. The eating-on-the-move theme continued with 2000’s Cake 2 Go range for people ‘who want to buy cake on impulse, for personal and immediate consumption’, the company explained. In 2001, they re-launched the brand. ‘The basic appeal is adult self-indulgence, a treat rather than a food, which generates a genuine feeling of happiness from a brand that is warm, friendly and personable.’ To hear all this, you would think cake lovers were ripping open the packets for an icing sugar high at the bus stop, in lifts, doing the housework and walking the dog. Perhaps they are.

In graphic terms, the 2001 identity was downmarket. The joined-up Mr Kipling lettering set in an unsubtle red oval frame looked cuddly and bouncy, as if it had been overdoing the snacks. The key words ‘Exceedingly Good’ featured prominently under a swoosh. The latest re-launch sees a swing the other way. The entire range, including a number of new products, looks more tasteful, in both senses. That’s the first impression, but you have to take stock of them on the shelf, next to the competition, to see how well they work.

The designs are exceedingly simple. The ‘Mr’ in Mr Kipling now has an ornate flourish, while the ‘Kipling’ is solid and dependable. The swoosh has become a long stroke of the pen. The product description underneath – ‘Exceedingly Good 6 Bramley Apple Pies’ – comes in bookish, letter-spaced caps, and all of this sits in the centre of the lid. The combination of elements is awkward, the effect nowhere near as elegant as it should be.

A close-up photographic detail of the cake inside fills the rest of the space. It is standard food packaging practice to use product shots, yet here, too, the design is less well baked than you would expect. The close-ups are meant to convey wholesomeness and flavour, but the pictures are murky. The apricot and sultana flapjacks look like sludge; the cherry bakewell pack features an almost abstract zoom into the top of a tart.

The photo on Waitrose’s own-brand box, showing six tarts on a cake stand, is much more appetising. The Waitrose cake packaging, with its stylish, centred, serif typography and enticingly descriptive pictures, consistently outclasses Mr Kipling’s. This is clearly a perceived competitor, too. Upmarket retailers such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer offer homemade-style whole cakes in boxes, so Mr Kipling has now launched its own range.

Another problem with the new packaging is that the tones and textures of cakes tend to be similar when magnified. Turner Duckworth's use of wrap-around close-ups on five sides of the box, with inset smaller pictures of the whole product, eliminates the background that can be used for distinguishing contrasts. Seen in rows on the shelf, Mr Kipling’s packages merge together. The name stands out, but it is too strident for the kind of packaging – and brand – it would like to be. As a piece of design, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, as other designers were quick to point out in Design Week. Sales shot up regardless. There has never been a reliable correlation between design quality and commercial success.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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